October 23, 2021

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Tough day at the Bogotá office for Canadian Carol Zhao

Tough first-round qualifying loss for Zhao in Bogotá (Tournament photo)

Canadian Carol Zhao, whose injury travails the last year and a half have been every bit as frustrating as those of her more heralded countrywoman Bianca Andreescu, was finally back in 2021.

But she had a tough setback Saturday, in the first round of qualifying at the WTA 250 tournament in Bogotá, Colombia.

Zhao was whupped 6-0, 6-0 by the sturdy Lara Arruabarrena of Spain.

The match took just 45 minutes. Zhao, who double-faulted 11 times, won just 17 of the 67 points played.

(We’ve reached out to Zhao to find out what happened; will report back).

Major altitude in Colombia

The tournament in Bogotá is a tough adjustment. As challenging as it was for the players in Guadalajara last month, with 5,500 feet of altitude to deal with, this one’s even worse. Bogotá sits at nearly 8,700 feet. A game changer.

But beyond the loss, Zhao’s journey this year just underscores how difficult it is for players not in the top 100 to even play at all, in this pandemic era.

A forearm/elbow injury kept the Canadian off the courts for 16 months from late 2019 until she finally returned in January, 2021. It was roughly the same timeframe as Andreescu. But Zhao also had missed the first half of the 2019 season with the same issue.

She was all set to return a year ago, pain-free at last and able to train.

And then the pandemic hit.

After the return, it was exceedingly difficult to find places to play.

A return in Abu Dhabi

With a protected ranking of No. 295, she was able to squeeze into the qualifying at the season-opening WTA tournament in Abu Dhabi in January.

She defeated Mirjam Bjorklund of Sweden before falling to Lucie Hradecka.

And then – uncertainty.

Zhao ended up not returning to Canada, which would have meant a two-week quarantine and eliminated her flexibility to find another tournament.

Instead, she set up camp in Northern California and tried to figure out her next move.

Zhao in full protective gear as she travelled back to North American from the Middle East. (Instagram)

Even with her protected ranking it was like looking for a lost tennis ball in a forest.

Ultimately, she ended up in South Africa, for a pair of $25,000 ITFs for which she needed that ranking to even get in.

That’s Canada … to Abu Dhabi … back to the west coast of the U.S. … and then all the way down to the Johannesburg area in a matter of a few weeks.

It turned out to be a fruitful trip. After losing in the first round of the first tournament, Zhao won the second one.

It was her first ITF title since Nov. 2017, when she won a much larger $100,000 event in Shenzhen, China.

And then … back to Canada – and the music gig

Zhao wins her first title in 3 1/2 years in Potchefstroom in February (Photo: TSA)

Zhao returned home, and had to go through the hotel quarantine process and isolation at home before she could get back to her life.

And the multi-talented Zhao maximized, releasing her second single called “How to Forget You”

Long trip to South America – for a one and done

Other than the WTA event in Colombia this week, there were a couple of $25,000 ITFs on clay in Argentina that she might have played.

She had entered the one the previous week, but withdrew late. It would have been an absolute logistical nightmare to even get to Bogotá from Buenos Aires in time to make the WTA qualifying.

Plus, Bogotá <–>Buenos Aires is an even longer distance than Toronto to Bogotá.

And now, on the Saturday, she’s already out of the event.

But now, what next?

There are not many options.

Zhao is entered in the qualifying at the WTA 250 event in Istanbul in two weeks. But even with her protected ranking she’s outside the top 60 – on the alternate list, not even the qualifying list.

Zhao warming up at the Copa Colsanitas in Bogotá (Photo supplied by the tournament)

Who knows? She might even end up being called to emergency duty for Billie Jean King Cup in Serbia two weeks, with Eugenie Bouchard having declined and No. 1 Bianca Andreescu now dealing with a foot injury.

So much uncertainty for a player who just wants to resume a career that had been going fairly well after a stellar junior career and a standout college career at Stanford.

At one point, not so long ago, she was the No. 1 ranked player in Canada.

Zhao already had the forearm in a vise at the US Open qualifying in 2018 where, shut out of the seeds by a spot, she ran into her pal Genie Bouchard, who was the No. 16 seed. She missed much of the next 2 1/2 years because of that injury.

To add to that, it appears she’s also lost a longtime clothing sponsor.

After wearing Lotto kits going all the way back to the juniors, she’s sporting duds supplied by her racquet sponsor, Head.

(She’s the only one having that issue in 2021. Top-10 doubles player Gaby Dabrowski, who had been wearing clothes made by the Canadian company Tonic for several years, has found herself picking up what she can because Tonic – previously endorsed by Martina Hingis – no longer manufactures a tennis line).

It’s frustrating to observe. Imagine what it feels like to experience it.